Fresh off the heels of the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s upcoming show Iron Fist has accrued a lot of backlash as well.
Originally a Marvel comic by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, Iron Fist tells the story of Daniel Rand, who winds up in a mystical (fictional) city in some part of Asia after surviving a tragic accident that killed his parents. Rand learns martial arts under the occupants of the city and, as a grown-up, returns to the US to avenge his parents’ death.
Many have been claiming that the unbearable whiteness of Iron Fist does not count as whitewashing since the main lead is originally a white man. However, Hollywood is notorious for casting white actors as characters who should be portrayed by actors of color. Even in the early stages of writing and casting a show, many producers automatically assume that white actors will play these leads, even when the story is clearly grounded in a different ethnic heritage. Since Hollywood is unlikely to cast Asian-American actors in any “typical” American roles—even if those roles are rooted in Asian culture—how can Asian-American performers expect to ever get any role in any setting? This hypocrisy in Hollywood not only devalues the work of past Asian-American talent but also hinders the careers of rising Asian actors and actresses.
Finn Jones, who plays David Rand in Iron Fist, has adamantly defended the show’s commitment to promoting diversity. Jones, the only member of the show’s cast or crew to comment on these criticisms, spoke out directly both to the press and on his personal Twitter account.
“We have an incredibly diverse cast; incredibly talented,” he said. "What I would say to that is, wait until you've seen the show, and then pass judgment, before you make comment, because people will be very, very, very pleasantly surprised with what we're doing in the show."
The backlash against Iron Fist isn’t directed toward Jones’ performance, and we appreciate the effort it takes to create any TV show. But if the star-spangled, all-American Marvel brand had hired an Asian-American as the lead, it would have been a symbolic acknowledgement that Asian-Americans are an integral part of the American history too. Hollywood has long relegated Asians to the portrayal of curiously “exotic” types, and that seeps into the culture and gets reflected back to us in the form of microaggressions. These generalizations of Asia as an entire continent solely filled with Buddhists and ninjas who excel in martial arts persist to this day. Although the trailers for Iron Fist are still very unclear as to whether the martial arts practiced by the main character are based in Korea, Japan, China, or elsewhere, Asian countries are more than their traditional combat practices—even if Hollywood suggests otherwise. It may be too soon to say, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the show continued to perpetuate Hollywood’s most-beloved Asian stereotypes.
Perhaps this dichotomy between Asian-American and white American actors owes its roots to the emasculation of Asian men. In 2013, Mark Wahlberg’s Lone Survivor followed a true story based on a SEAL team who were hired to kill a Taliban leader. In the credits, which included photos from the actual operation, there were photos of a Korean-American soldier, James Suh, who had been left out of the film entirely. Suh died during the SEAL operation having served the country just as much as anyone else on the team, but he was entirely absent in the movie, even in passing group scenes of soldiers eating or doing other communal activities. The complete absence of this character in Lone Survior poses questions about who gets to be recognized as an American hero and why Asians are excluded from this image.
This kind of erasure leads to other forms of marginalization and dismissal for Asian men. Earlier this year, Steve Harvey made an incredibly racist joke about Asian American men dating non-Asian women. He ridiculed the book How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men by responding that the book could be summed in a single page: "'Excuse me, do you like Asian men?' No, thank you.” He continues in a female voice, "I don’t even like Chinese food, boy. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.”
Although Harvey did apologize, his offhanded mockery is more than a microaggression: Harvey was echoing a preconceived notion that many non-Asians hold about Asian men. When people don’t interact with real Asian-Americans, they treat those baffled-nerd stereotypes of Asian men as representations of reality, which is truly frightening. How else to explain the absence of the perished solider James Suh from Lone Survivor? His omission is not only incredibly disrespectful to him and his family, but also very sad, because it suggests that even if you give your life to this country, you still might not be recognized for your service—all because your lived experience doesn’t match up to a stereotype.
I highly doubt that the producers and directors of Iron First were thinking of the emasculation of Asian men in the media when they cast a white man as the lead—and that’s the problem. In foregoing an opportunity to transform those harmful stereotypes, Hollywood has let us down once again. In fairness, the bar wasn’t that high to begin with—but shouldn’t we be able to expect more?